Joyriding—taking or driving someone else's car without permission—is often depicted in film or on television as a youthful rite of passage. But joyriding, also called unauthorized use of a vehicle, is a crime. And a conviction can land you in jail or prison.
The classic example of joyriding is a teenager who takes a parent's car out for the evening without permission. But joyriding can also be committed by strangers or people (such as mechanics or valets) who have access to vehicles for one purpose but use the cars for some other purpose. Regardless of who took the vehicle without permission, it's a crime. Some states also penalize any passengers who ride along knowing the driver doesn't have permission to use the car.
In state statutes and criminal codes, joyriding might be called "unauthorized use of a motor vehicle," "operation of a vehicle without permission," or "unlawful taking of a vehicle." To be convicted of this offense, the prosecution must generally prove that the person took or used the vehicle without the owner's consent and intended to exercise temporary control over the vehicle.
As noted above, joyriding offenses involve a temporary taking—the defendant doesn't intend to keep the vehicle. On the other hand, a person who steals a car does not intend to return it to the owner. It's this difference in intent that distinguishes joyriding from stealing. Theft is defined as unlawfully taking another's property with the intent of permanently depriving the person of their property. Auto theft tends to be a more serious crime than joyriding but not in all states.
States differ widely on punishments for joyriding. Some states consider joyriding to be the same as theft (despite the difference in intent). In these states, the penalty usually ends up being a felony. Other states penalize joyriding less harshly than theft offenses because the offender's intent was not to take the car permanently, but rather only temporarily. These states might impose misdemeanor or low-level felony penalties.
In most states, a person convicted of a misdemeanor for joyriding typically faces up to a year in jail, plus fines. A first-time misdemeanor offender isn't likely to get much jail time. However, if the person has prior convictions on record (especially for joyriding) or took the vehicle from a vulnerable person, the judge will likely consider a jail sentence.
In states where joyriding is a felony, jail or prison time is definitely a possibility. Here, a first-time offender might be looking at felony probation that includes a short time in jail. For the repeat offender, the judge might send them to prison.
Other sentencing options a judge may impose include community service hours, house arrest, driver's license suspension, and restitution (if the victim or a victim suffered any financial loss). Financial losses could include damage to the car or even the medical bills of a person injured in an accident caused by the joyrider.
A minor who commits joyriding faces the same charges as an adult but in a different court. Someone younger than 18 will usually end up in juvenile court rather than adult criminal court. Juvenile judges have more options when it comes to sentencing or disposition of the case. A judge could order the minor to attend classes, go to counseling, abide by a curfew, be supervised by probation, complete community service, and lose their license.
Besides "it wasn't me," defendants often raise consent as a defense to joyriding charges, arguing that they reasonably believed the owner consented to the use of the vehicle. This situation might happen when the owner allowed the person to use the vehicle for a limited purpose, such as to give a friend a ride home, but the person uses the vehicle for purposes that go beyond what was permitted. Say the owner authorized the person to drive to the friend's house and drive back but the person decides to drive around town all night with their friend. The owner did not consent to the all-night driving, only the limited pickup. Unless the friend lived far away and the all-night driving was to pick up and drive them home (and the owner knew that), the person won't likely succeed by raising a defense of consent.
If you are charged with joyriding or any other criminal offense, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can explain the law in your state, investigate your case, protect your rights, and help you obtain the best possible outcome.